Names matter, as the recent decision to rename Calhoun College at Yale clearly indicates. As a distinguished alumni of Yale, Calhoun rated having a college named after him, until modern awareness of his involvement in the slavery issue demanded that his name be expunged immediately. Case closed, right?
Well, not so fast. As it turns out that there are much worse examples of things named after slave owners and slave trade supporters at Yale:
Calhoun owned slaves. But so did Timothy Dwight, Calhoun’s mentor at Yale, who has a college named in his honor. So did Benjamin Silliman, who also gives his name to a residential college, and whose mother was the largest slave owner in Fairfield County, Conn. So did Ezra Stiles, John Davenport and even Jonathan Edwards, all of whom have colleges named in their honor at Yale.
Writing in these pages last summer, I suggested that Yale table the question of John Calhoun and tackle some figures even more obnoxious to contemporary sensitivities. One example was Elihu Yale, the American-born British merchant who, as an administrator in India, was an active participant in the slave trade.
President Salovey’s letter announcing that Calhoun College would be renamed argues that “unlike … Elihu Yale, who made a gift that supported the founding of our university … Calhoun has no similarly strong association with our campus.” What can that mean? Calhoun graduated valedictorian from Yale College in 1804. Is that not a “strong association”? (Grace Hopper held two advanced degrees from the university but had no association with the undergraduate Yale College.)
As far as I have been able to determine, Elihu Yale never set foot in New Haven. His benefaction of some books and goods worth £800 helped found Yale College, not Yale University. And whereas the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica praises Calhoun for his “just and kind” treatment of slaves and the “stainless integrity” of his character, Elihu Yale had slaves flogged, hanged a stable boy for stealing a horse, and was eventually removed from his post in India for corruption. Is all that not “fundamentally at odds” with the mission of Peter Salovey’s Yale?
I anticipate a quicker response to these revelations than the administrators managed in the Calhoun College case…
H/T to Amy Alkon for the link.